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National Hip Hop Political Convention Uses Grass Roots Activism to Get Out African American Vote - 2004-07-07

General elections in the United States are just five months away, and grass root groups and political coalitions are working hard to get their interests onto the national radar.

Just outside the Newark gymnasium where more than 1,000 state delegates and activists had gathered for the National Hip Hop Political Convention, a group of young people took time out for some impromptu Hip Hop dancing around a portable radio. Inside, national co-chairman Baye Adofo-Wilson was explaining to reporters that the purpose of the gathering was to develop a national political agenda for the Hip Hop Generation loosely defined as young people between the ages of 18 and 34. "The Convention is not just about November, even though November is very essential and important," he explained. "It's about taking the steps necessary for this generation to take ownership of electoral politics, civic activities, advocacy and direct action."

One might think that taste in music and a taste for political action belong to separate spheres of life. But Mr. Adofo-Wilson says that Hip Hop culture and grassroots activism belong together. "I think for a lot of people, its not just about listening to a type of music. Hip Hop is reflective of who they are," he said. "Hip Hop comes out of a sort of urban culture that was developed in the 1970s when there were no arts and musical programs in the schools. So people used the streets [and] the urban fabric to create music and talk about what was going on in their urban lives.

So for a lot of people, the musical genre and what the artists sing about and talk about is a reflection of what's happening to them in their lives. And that's often how people feel about it. It's a part of who they are. That also includes the music, but also includes the culture, the clothes, the language [and] the way we process information." There were many inner city activists at the Convention. Rudy Corpus of Oakland California takes Hip Hop and spoken word poetry to youth detention centers. He's been busy networking since the moment the Convention began.

"And everybody is getting 'laced.' When I say 'laced,' I mean 'educated.' They [are] getting to know what is happening with the movements and, you know, strategies is [are] being pushed certain ways. So we gotta to keep ourselves focused," he stressed, "I mean 'crispie'- you 'feel [understand] me'? So we can be 'up on game' [at our best]. We're talking about dealing with the underdogs, the oppressed. The cats [people] out there that are 'fighting the power.'"

David Dix of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania characterized his own involvement quite differently. Before attending the Convention, Mr. Dix registered 50 people to vote. This entitled him to become one of the 1200 or so delegates. Each delegate is entitled to sit on Convention committees and to vote on policy platforms.

"As a delegate, I would hope that we can look at ways that we can influence politics, not only by voting, but by actively pursuing candidates, actively engaging in a political debate and those ideas that we have as a Hip Hop generation can be infused in the political arena," he said.

There was a dazzling range of personal styles among the 2,000 plus Conference attendees. Still, according to Reverend Osajio Osaykoo, a member of the event's Platform and Protocol Committee, there seemed to be broad consensus about the nature of the work to be done. "And that work is around education rights, it's around the expansion of the prison industrial complex, access to a decent living wage, universal health care, and the inclusion of women in a variety of issues and that kind of thing," he said.

Attendees advocated many ways to achieve their goals. Lisa Fager of "Hip Hop Voices," a Washington, D.C. group wants to carry on the civil rights work her parents' generation struggled for. For her, that means "getting out the vote."

"We need to take the movement further. It's up to us and we are in a state of emergency right now," she said. "I mean, Baltimore has a 76 percent dropout rate for African American males in 9th grade. That is a state of emergency! And we need to connect those issues to the Hip Hop generation whom it most affects. So it's 'all souls to the polls November 2 [Election Day]' to show that we're making a difference."

Not everyone in the Hip Hop Generation puts their trust in the ballot box. "Dead Prez," is an internationally famous group known for its radical politics.

"M-1," one half of "Dead Prez," sat on one of the Convention panels. Between sessions, "M-1" spoke to reporters amid a crush of fans. M-1: The idea of electoral politics is futile. We have no one to vote for. There is not a choice. Phillips: Have you voted in the past?

M-1: I've never voted. I'm not going to vote until you put revolution on the ballot.

Some attendees were too young to vote. Still, it was hard not to be impressed by the idealism of teenagers like Falashaday Gallimore of Newark New Jersey, who is committed to doing what she can for her community and the Hip Hop generation.

"I got involved with being political and things of that nature by my history teacher, she tried to get children involved with being more aware with what things are going on with in Newark," she explained. "Because we have so many issues - like how we can stop these things like abandoned buildings, how we can clean up the streets and make Newark look a lot better. So she helped us find a way for our voices to be heard, so our voices could make a difference.

How does it make her feel?

"It makes you feel great!" she exclaimed. Soon, the talk gives way to the music. But the music doesn't prevent delegates from establishing a political platform and getting the attendees revved up for November's election and beyond.